Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thinking: An undervalued, vital part of writing.

Let me think.
Factoring in time to think, that will probably take about….
Think about that some more.
Rethink this.
Wait. I'm thinking.
Hmm…but what do you really think?

The above are things I say at various points in the drafting, writing, revision, editing, or rewriting process.

I say them to myself.

Reminding myself about the need to factor in thinking time – as a preamble to the drafting time, within the writing time, around the editing time, as part of the research time, before and during the revision time – has become something I do now as a matter of course.

This wasn't always the case.

Time was, I didn't give a thought to thinking time. It happened, of course, but often as a side effect, a belated blip, the thing that popped up and slowed me down.

Now I try hard to recognize, and honor, the time we need to think. About how to approach a topic. About what a story is really about – underneath the topline situation, the this-happened-then-that-happened. About why I'm writing about some particular thing in the first place, and how I could make it better.

About what needs to happen on the page, about why I'm even at the page.

I'm also learning to take, or to ask for (or find a way to insert, quietly), time to think more deliberately before responding to requests, prospective projects, the occasional mean-spirited or disturbing comment, and to my own knee-jerk reactions.

But mostly, I'm now honoring the time that is a vital  -- and largely undervalued and unrecognized – part of writing.

What do you think?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Stuff My Writing Students Say, Part 15

"I'm just not that into this assignment."

I give out an assignment in a nonfiction writing class. It typically has well-defined parameters, an assignment specifically designed to flex a new or developing writing muscle, with a word count that makes sense for the time that will elapse between assignment and due date. An assignment that will subtly force the writers to edge just outside their writing comfort zone, or to engage with a sticky craft concept we've been covering, or to introduce a new way of working with prose or approaching a familiar form in a new way (a personal essay in second person).

It's not that I want to inhibit a student writer's imagination, limit their subjects, or promote a particular aesthetic. Rather, I want them to stretch, to try something new or something hard or sometimes just something else. And yes, I have a reason, which might not always be apparent at the moment.

Mind you, it's almost never an assignment that would stretch over more than one-third of the class sessions, and usually it's simply a one-week project. And – and this is important – I'm talking here about organized, instructional-based classes in writing development; not workshop-style sessions where the underlying assumption is that you write what you like any way you like it, for any reason you may have. Here we are talking about a class which built on the assumption that assignments will be made, that such assignments will help develop and polish writing skills.

So, the assignment is made, and inevitably, someone complains/explains, "I'm just not really interested in that assignment.  Maybe I can do something else instead."

Reasons?  Oh, plenty:  I've never liked doing X.  I'm short on time and Y will be easier. I'm just really into Y right now.  I can't see how doing/writing X will help me.  I'm trying to write a book, and there won't be anything like X in it. I'm on a roll in my other writing and don't want to distract myself with X.  It seems like busywork. How can this possibly help my writing?

To which I reply: I understand, I get it, I've been there. 

But that's the assignment. Try it. See what happens.

My reasons: You may learn something. You may surprise yourself. You may like it. You may not like it. You may figure something out about yourself as a writer. You may have fun. You may be miserable, but still find a way to complete the assignment – and pass another milestone on the way to being a grown-up writer.

You may find, as I did many times when I completed assignments I initially groaned about, that sometimes the best response is no response. The best response to an assignment in an instructional-based class is simply to do it. Write it.

You may find (maybe not right away, but eventually), as I did on several occasions, a door or a window or a crack you've never once thought of seeking out on your own. You may find that through that door or window or crack is the small beckoning stream of light that opens you up to something new and wonderful, on the page, in your writer's mind.

Try it. See what happens.*

You can read the first 14 installments of Stuff My Students Say here.

* I use this simple two-sentence bit of advice all the time, something I cribbed from a writer I admire enormously, Leslea Newman.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Personal Essay and Me: The sudden path from zero to urgent

Had you asked me a year ago if I would ever be writing about the Jersey Shore, the answer would have been "probably not." Although I'm a native born, lifelong Jersey Girl -- I don't pump my own gas; I love Bruce Springsteen, like Bon Jovi, and eat in diners -- unlike almost every Jersey Girl I've ever known, I never developed an early childhood crush for the Jersey Shore. 

For me, The Shore is a place I learned to appreciate only long after I'd initially dismissed it -- something I thought little about until after Hurricane Sandy destroyed so much of the Shore last fall. Which is when I began writing about my complicated relationship with this iconic part of my home state.

For me, this is how it is with essays and personal nonfiction narratives: one day a topic is of no appeal, and the next, I have something to say, and urgently. This is how an essay begins for me -- a moment, an awakening, a realization, an urge; that itch that won't go away until I pay attention, on paper.

The eventual essay that I began in November 2012, titled "Not a Shore Thing," is now live -- just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the storm's destruction -- over at bioStories, a lovely online home for personal stories.

Here's an excerpt:

....When I was about eight, I sashayed about my living room, empty Coke bottle in hand, singing along to the Drifters' sixties classic Under the Boardwalk. I hoped and wondered if I'd be kissed on a warm blanket in the slatted shade, people walking above. Eventually, I was that girl, or at least a version of her, though the kissing all took place right on the Boardwalk: some stringy blond boy whose name I'd forget, a high school boyfriend, my fiancĂ©.  
        But before any of that, and even during some of that, I was a shore snob.
        My parents were to blame -- if showing your child the world beyond one's home state has anything to do with blame. When my father, an early polyester manufacturer, wanted to get away, he meant an airplane ride and five-star resort, where the beach was just one of 18 amenities. Boardwalk games, un-air conditioned rentals, motel pools, and waffles and ice cream were something other kids told me about...

You can read the whole piece here.  And please do drop in at bioStories from time to time, where editor Mark Leichliter posts new essays every five weeks or so.

(Image: Flickr Creative Commons / b0janagles)